Nobel and Darwin

Congratulations to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine today. They won for their pioneering work on the 600 or so receptors that we use to smell. As is so often the case these days, the research that wins people the Nobel for Medicine also reveals a lot about our evolution. This February, for example, Buck published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which she and her colleagues charted the evolutionary history of human olfactory receptors.

As Buck explains, it appears that many olfactory receptor genes mutated beyond repair in our lineage as we came to rely more on sight than smell. Only about half of the olfactory receptor genes in the human genome actually produce working proteins. (You can find working versions of these genes in other animals). Other researchers, however, have found that some human olfactory genes have undergone strong natural selection, which suggests that it’s still a good idea to be able to sniff out a piece of rotten meat. (If you want more details on this line of research, you can read an essay I wrote a couple years ago for Natural History.)

And yet, somehow creationsists and their ilk keep a straight face as they continue to tell us that evolution is a dying myth. In this month’s Wired, for example, techno-know-nothing George Gilder declares "Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science." When Gilder gets to run the Nobel Prize committee, I guess he can take back Buck’s medal.